Frume Sarah isn’t big on change. Which can be difficult for a rabbi in the Reform (aka Progressive) movement. Sometimes the resistance to change is completely irrational. Which is also problematic in a movement that prides itself on a rational approach to religion. After all, my alma-mater is a direct descendant of the “Hochshule.”
But remember…they don’t call me Frume Sarah for nothing.
It may surprise you that when it comes to gender and gender roles, I am pretty much a traditionalist. Present vocational choice excluded. The term avot indicates ancestors. I’m good with the “L word.” And it truly does not bother me that men thank God for not having made them female. [Though I personally think it makes more sense for both women AND men to thank God for being made according to Divine Will — another post for another day.]
Women bentch licht. Men say kiddush. It isn’t that a man can’t light candles or that a woman can’t say the blessing of santification over the wine. The mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles, according to Maimonides, falls to both men and women (Hilchot Shabbat 5:1), though it is primarily the obligation of the woman (Hilchot Shabbat 5:3). Thus, if no Jewess is available come the astronomical sunset on a Friday, the man is obligated to light the candles.
That’s how it’s been. And that’s how it shall be.
Or so we said.
It isn’t that it was exactly forbidden. It’s just that no man had ever requested to light the candles at the start of Kabbalat Shabbat. It simply has not been our minhag.
Until a couple of months ago, when a member of our congregation wondered whether he could light the candles. And then we had to make a decision.
I am bound to disclose that I was one hundred percent, completely opposed to the notion. For no reason other than a purely emotional response. After all, the Reform movement counts women towards a minyan, ordains women, allows them to be called to Torah, act as witnesses, etc. In other words, women are given full access to all areas of ritual life. How, then, could we suddenly prevent someone from participating in a ritual based on gender? So I recognize that my feelings were irrational. I was permitted to voice my opinion, as all staff members have always been free to express thoughts, ideas, etc. And then…I was overruled. Because, in the end, I am not the senior rabbi. There is one senior…and it is not me. The pulpit and its rituals, ultimately, rest in his hands.
This was still hypothetical, however, as no male had been scheduled to light candles.
And then…there we were on Shabbat Shuvah. With no one assigned for the honours. Why, you ask? Because — and I hate to admit this — folks just aren’t up for yet another service after spending so much time in shul during these Days of Awe. Between me and the lampost, I do find it fascinating that the folks who attend Shabbat Shuvah by us are the ones who tend to attend most, if not all, of the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The ones who complain about not being able to spend “one minute more” at synagogue are the ones who typically put in an hour, maybe two, and then cut out early. [Also a post for another time.]
The next thing I know, two folks (a man and a woman) are up on the bimah, lighting candles. She read the English, he lit the candles, and recited the bracha in beautiful,flawless Hebrew. With the most kavanah I have heard over candles in a long, long time.
And as I whispered the Shehechiyanu into the ears of the candle blessers, I silently thanked God for removing the stumbling block from before me.